A Reporter’s Diary: Lost in Translation

The entire event was in Tamil and I did not understand a word of it.

For a rookie reporter in Chennai, a working knowledge of spoken Tamil is downright handy, if not necessary. However, my feeble attempts to learn the language eight months into my sojourn in this city have come to naught. Enaku Tamil Theriyadhu, okay?

I had been assigned to cover the Sahitya Akademi Foundation Day lecture in Teynampet. Looking back, I guess my Spidey sense should have gone into active mode the moment I walked into that small second-floor office, rearranged with 20-odd chairs in the centre of the room to resemble a meeting hall.

All I could see in front of me were a bunch of lungi-clad men, most of them past their retirement age. Who else comes to these events, right? Besides young reporters who need to keep themselves busy, of course.

A man near the entrance motioned me to take a seat, whereupon I asked him whether the session would be in English. He nodded vigorously, so I dropped my belongings onto a nearby chair and proceeded to gorge upon soft, melt-in-your-mouth — okay, nothing of that sort. Just a solitary lukewarm vada and a cup of tea.

Ten minutes past the scheduled starting time, a man stood in front of the microphone to draw everyone’s attention. Then he spoke the magic words, and everybody clapped. And I did not, because I could not understand a single word that came out of his mouth.

Okay macha, calm down — I told myself. Maybe he is making an announcement before the session begins — oh wait, there goes one elderly lungi-clad gentleman from the front row onto a sofa placed on the makeshift stage (it was just a sofa with oodles of leg space in front, honestly), followed by a couple more.

And that’s when I hit the panic button, which meant texting my editor these exact words — “The whole session is in Tamil. Do I stick around?” — which was me screaming, “HOUSTON, WE HAVE A PROBLEM! MAYDAY! MAYDAY!”

The second of the three speakers was halfway through his speech when my editor replied,

“When you are in a situation like this, call me.”

I do not remember much of the telephonic conversation I had with him a couple of minutes later, but it can be summed up in two words — MISSION ABORT.

Moral of the story? Well, plenty of them. Call the organisers before you go. Talk to someone who is in charge and knows what s/he is talking about.

And most important of all — it’s okay to ask for help from the boss when you really need it. Even if they seem scary.

Like what our honourable Prime Minister once said, “Benefit kar sakte hai.”

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Someone with the perfect blend of self-delusion and ego to think that he can succeed where others have failed.

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